Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
Down to Brass Tacks: The Long of It
What the hell is in my camera bag? This is no secret—it’s on our website and is one of the heaviest pounded pages there. I’d really like to not focus on which lenses I have, but why I have a particular lens, for all the reasons I just talked about and much more. I remember all too well a reviewer of my first book on wildlife photography frying me big time because most of the images in the book were taken with an 800mm f/5.6. He stated that the info was useless, since no one else owned, or could afford, an 800mm (he’s no longer a name in photography—wonder why?). The point of, and bottom line for, this whole book is that if you enjoy the images here, which is not the same as thinking they are the best in the world (and I’ve not shot my best work yet), then there has to be something in the gear I use day in and day out to produce these images. The proof is in the pudding (or pixels, whichever you prefer).
I’m constantly asked (as if the answer means diddly squat), “If you could only have one lens, which one would it be?” There is no such magical lens for being a successful wildlife photographer. But, if I had to pick one lens I truly love shooting with all the time (and one that I actually do shoot with a heck of a lot of the time), it would be the AF-S VR 600mm f/4 (it is my baby). It is the only lens parked next to my desk so I can constantly shoot even when, well, when I’m writing this book, for example. When it comes to wildlife photography, there really isn’t anything—anything—it can’t do by itself or with the addition of a simple accessory or two. To be honest with ya, I don’t know how you can get real serious about wildlife photography and get real serious images without this big gun.
I mentioned how, in a previous book, all the images were taken with an 800mm f/5.6 lens. That is truly the focal length I love the most, because of its very narrow angle of view of only 3 degrees. The 600mm has an angle of view of 4 degrees (numbers rounded off). That 1-degree difference in the angle of view is very important to my style of photography. As I’ve mentioned, and as you can see in the photographs, I’m not an eyeball photographer. I am, though, a background control freak! These two things are why I rarely shoot with the straight 600mm lens. The majority of the time, the TC-17E II or TC-14E II is attached. These provide a focal length of 1020mm or 840mm, respectively. More importantly, they bring back the angle of view I so want, down to a little more than 2 degrees.
You probably thought I was going to say the 600mm f/4 VR is wicked sharp, and that’s why it’s my go-to lens for wildlife photography. I thought that was obvious, so I didn’t mention it, but as you can see, there’s more to it than just that. Focal length is often equated with image size—the bigger the lens, the bigger the image size—and while that is true, real practitioners of the art of wildlife photography take the big lens way beyond this starting point.
The 600mm sings for me when photographing birds. The reasons are many, as you’ll read throughout the book, but the main one is its ability to isolate the subject optically as I get close physically. What does that mean? Birds live in a very busy world of branches, twigs, seashells, and grasses, and all too often to make the photograph, we have to eliminate many of the unwanted items, while including those elements important to the photograph. Have someone put a tennis ball out in an uncut lawn, making believe it’s a bird you’re stalking, and try to make a great photo of it. You’ll soon find that getting a clear shot of the eye(s), while telling the story, is pretty dang tough without that 600mm lens. (If you don’t own a 600mm, don’t feel discouraged, as there are some options, renting being the very least.)
As I said before, the physical size of the 600mm scares a lot of folks—it’s heavy, no doubt. That comes from that very important f/4 maximum aperture. Letting all that light in for AF operation and DOF control exacts a price in weight. I know a lot of folks who you wouldn’t think could get around with it on their shoulder, but you’d be surprised what you can do when taught the most effective way. Getting it in and out of a plane’s overhead compartment is a totally different matter!
Before moving on, we need to talk about the teleconverter and the big lens. The TC-14E II and TC-17E II are always with me (I go with the TC-17E II most of the time). There is both a plus and a minus to using them that you need to consider. The plus that everyone knows about is the “magnification” they bring to the image. There is no doubt this is a real big plus when you want to get close physically, but can’t, so glass is your only option. Another plus has to do with a double whammy when it comes to isolating the subject. The magnification, yeah you get that one. The narrowing the angle of view, you have a hint of that potential now. But what about DOF?
The teleconverter works by magnifying the image and, in the process, that extra glass doing the magnifying is sucking up one or more stops of light (1.4x = 1 stop of light; 1.7x = 1.5 stops of light). When you attach, for example, the TC-17E II to the 600mm f/4 (my favorite combo, since the 2.01 D3 firmware update, which provided hugely better low-light AF operation), the f/4 in the viewfinder goes to f/6.7 (f/6.7 is the effective f-stop). This is because of the loss of light caused by the glass magnifying the image. Most people assume that this increased f-stop results in an increase in DOF when the viewfinder displays f/6.7. Actually, you have less DOF than f/6.7!
Yeah, here’s where we have to get technical for a moment, pull out the ol’ calculator, only to forget the info as it really is trivial. Depth of field is a formula, taking into account the size of the aperture, the focal length of the lens, the distance of the subject, and the circle of confusion (probably lost you already in the confusion—it gives me a headache). The bottom line is that the teleconverter doesn’t change any part of this formula, other than to alter the focal length. The hole at the back of the lens is the same diameter with or without the teleconverter attached.
When you attach the TC-14E, adding 1.4x to any f/4 lens, the effective f-stop becomes f/5.6, but renders a DOF of f/4.9. When you attach the TC-17E II, adding 1.7x, the effective f-stop of f/6.7 renders a DOF of f/5.7. It’s called an effective f-stop because of the light loss of the extra glass, effective for the calculation of exposure only. It’s actually in the fine print in the little folded instruction manual sheet that comes with the teleconverter, but if you’re like me, you don’t read them. All you really need to know is that the DOF you’re getting is less than the f-stop you’re using.
This brings us back to the plus and minus of using a teleconverter. The plus, as I see it, is the narrowing of the angle of view, and the slightly narrower band of DOF. This permits you to isolate the subject in the frame, and while it might not fill the frame, the eye can’t help but go to it because of the plane of focus. The negative, as I see it, is the narrow band of DOF when you really want or need that extra DOF in limited light situations. Ah, one of the many “compromises” photography is so well known for—the yin and yang of the teleconverter. Personally, the pluses outweigh the minus, but each photographer must make that decision for themselves.
Since a prototype was put in my hands at a Photoshop World precon, I have been a huge fan of the AF-S 200–400mm f/4 VR lens. These days, I see this great lens in the hands of most wildlife photographers and for very good reasons, some of which I’ve already mentioned. Its small size and price make it easy for many to deal with, both in the field and in the wallet. But here’s where I probably diverge from most shooters using it: I use it basically just for big game.
The most common combo in which the 200–400mm VR is used is on a DX body, so the effective focal length is 300–600mm. This is a real sweet focal length range for bird photography. And with the MFD of only 6′6″, that produces a much bigger image size than the 600mm lens on an FX body. I would like to encourage you, though, to not be focused on image size, but rather the relationship between the subject and its world contained within your viewfinder.
The 200–400mm on the DX body might give you an effective focal length of 300–600mm, but its perspective—angle of view—is still that of the 200–400mm. Man, we are really splitting hairs here when we talk about this stuff, but I think this ever-so-slight difference is enough that I own both the 600mm and 200–400mm. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. In the balancing act of the subject and the world around it, splitting hairs is often the difference between good and great images. And to be honest with you, when starting out, you can own the 200–400mm VR and DX body for less than the 600mm lens, so it makes good sense to start there. Just don’t stop there!
The question that is probably floating around in your mind is: Why the 600mm for birds and the 200–400mm VR for mammals? That’s a darn good question and, really, the answer lies in the mind of a fanatic. Photography, as I see it, is a constant wrangling of subtleties into the viewfinder that, when all added up, produce big-time drama. Little nuances that, when seen and included, set the stage for everything else.
The angle of view, the perspective, of the 400mm compared to 600mm is different enough it can make a subtle difference in how a subject is perceived in a photograph. Never forget that we are working more with perceptions than reality in photography, especially wildlife photography. The Rocky Mountain elk is a very majestic critter. When you say the word “elk” to someone, they think wilderness, wild and wooly, with snow blowing and wolves howling. Deliver less than that in your photograph and you run the risk of not getting that “wow” you might be after. For me, I might not be tugging at those heartstrings. In this case, shooting the elk with the 600mm, you “compact” it, more so the physically closer you are to it. What’s this “compacting” I’m talking about?
It is best described using a reference we’re all familiar with: the Hollywood car chase scene. Those scenes, when not done in a computer, are filmed using a specially rigged telephoto lens: 600–1200mm. The cars in the final cut appear to be stacked on top of each other, driving so close the audience wonders how they survived the making of the film, let alone the movie. In reality, the cars are not nearly as close as they appear—the distance between them is visually compacted by shooting with long glass. This same thing can happen to big game, making them look less wildernessie (I know that’s not a word, but it works).
With this all said and done, does it mean I never use a 600mm to photograph big game or the 200–400mm to photograph birds? Hell no, I use the tool required and at hand to make the image. I don’t like photographing big game with the 600mm, but I have, and the results have been published. I have photographed birds with the 200–400mm with the same results. But these images don’t make it as my own personal all-time favorites (I actually went and checked because I was curious). What it does mean, though, is that I own both lenses, and when I go out to shoot birds or big game, I take either the 600mm or 200–400mm, depending on what I foresee as being the best tool for that particular shooting scenario.
This is where the AF-S 200mm f/2 VR comes into the war chest. It’s not your normal wildlife photographer’s lens by any stretch of the imagination. I do not recommend it to you as a wildlife photographer (but do as a photographer), and in the interest of complete disclosure, I feel I need to talk about this lens because I freakin’ love it!. It’s an essential lens in my arsenal for basically one reason: f/2. Besides being wickedly sharp, its very narrow DOF at f/2 when shooting at 200mm (or with the TC-14E II, at f/2.8) makes any subject its trained on leap out from its surroundings. It’s a lens I’ve had from the beginning—since 1988—from manual focus to the current VR version.
One large advantage of this lens is the f/2, not just for DOF, but for working in minimal light or dark forests. I’m not a “crank up the ISO” kinda shooter. I leave the ISO in the basement. But that’s not what I’m referring to when I talk about using f/2 in minimal light. Our AF cameras need light, contrast, and vertical or diagonal lines to operate, to focus. When you start getting in marginal light, you start to have focusing issues shooting with a lens whose maximum aperture is f/4. Working at f/2, you have AF operation, where you otherwise might not. I don’t wear glasses, but I do depend on the AF to make the initial focus and, because of that, I have the tools to make it work.
As I mentioned, when I started out, the 300mm f/2.8 was considered the lens for wildlife photographers. I had one for a year back when the first AF-S model came out. Looking back on it, I have no clue why I had that lens. Looking at my files, there are only one or two images taken with that lens that have any meaning to me now. When I look at my files and look at the lenses that have taken the majority of the wildlife images that make me smile, they were taken with the three lenses we’ve talked about. I mention this because you need to do the same thing. There is so much “This is the lens!” stuff out there, it’s hard to find your way sometimes. Heck, I just said I don’t see you making it without a 600mm, then I told you a way you could. No sooner is that said, than someone will come down the road with killer images captured with a 500mm VR and teleconverter.
You should have a better idea now about my answer to the question, “What’s the best lens?” It really does all depend on you, your style, and your abilities. You might never enter a dark forest to photograph a moose, so why shoot with a 200mm f/2? You might live on the coast and never see a big mammal (whales don’t count here), so a 200–400mm VR isn’t a smart buy. You could live in the north, where big game rule the land, so a 600mm VR just doesn’t make sense. You will need to think through your photography and your passions, and use that as a guide in finding the right lens for you and your photography!